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UN Committee: El Salvador’s Absolute Ban on Abortion Violates Women’s Human Rights

Committee calls on Salvadoran government to immediately review and amend the country’s extreme abortion laws, which have led to the harsh criminalization of women

(PRESS RELEASE) El Salvador’s criminalization of abortion has been denounced by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN CESCR) for violating women’s human rights, according to new findings by the committee.

During its review of El Salvador, UN CESCR called into question the injustices and suffering Salvadoran women face due to the country’s absolute ban on abortion, particularly when it comes to women who are imprisoned on suspicion of having had an abortion after seeking medical attention for serious pregnancy complications. The committee concluded that the abortion ban has resulted in violations of women’s right to health and right to due process, among others. It urged the state to “review its legislation with regard to the total prohibition of abortion to make it compatible with other fundamental rights such as health and life of the woman, as well as with their dignity,” and to prioritize quality treatment—rather than criminal prosecution- for women who need medical care as a result of unsafe abortions and pregnancy complications.
 
The Center for Reproductive Rights and the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical, and Eugenic Abortion (CFDA) submitted a joint letter in April to the UN CESCR condemning El Salvador’s total abortion ban and how it has led to numerous human rights violations.  
 
Said Mónica Arango, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights:
 
“For too long, El Salvador’s absolute ban on abortion has forced women into the shadows simply for seeking essential reproductive health care. Salvadoran women put themselves at risk of imprisonment for decades and a host of human rights violations not only when they need to end a pregnancy, but also when they seek medical care for serious and potentially fatal pregnancy complications.
 
“Today the UN Committee rightly recognized that El Salvador’s long history of imprisoning women under its harsh anti-abortion laws represents a gross violation of women’s human rights, from their basic right to health to their due process rights. 
 
“It’s well past time the Salvadoran government take the concrete steps necessary to finally decriminalize abortion and begin respecting and protecting the human rights of women.” 
 
The UN CESCR oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a treaty obligating member states to ensure equal enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights for all individuals. Today’s findings reiterated the disproportionate effect of El Salvador’s abortion ban on poor women with a lower level of education. The committee also noted the high number of illegal abortions in the country, the severe health consequences they spur, and how clandestine terminations continue to be one of the main causes of maternal mortality.
 
El Salvador’s ban on abortion is one of the most extreme in the world—prohibiting the procedure even when necessary to save a woman’s life and imposing harsh criminal penalties on both women and physicians. Under current Salvadoran law, anyone who performs an abortion with the woman’s consent, or a woman who self-induces or consents to someone else inducing her abortion, can be imprisoned for up to eight years. In reality, most women end up being prosecuted and sentenced for aggravated homicide, which is punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
 
“Because of El Salvador’s harsh abortion law, women avoid hospitals because they get treated like murderers when what they need is immediate medical care,” said Morena Herrera, Executive Director of CDFA. “The UN committee has shed light on this tragedy and the government must change its abortion policies so women can get the reproductive health care they need without fear.”
 
The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked for more than 12 years to expose the consequences that the blanket abortion ban in El Salvador has on the lives of women. In March 2012, the Center and CDFA filed a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of “Manuela,” a mother of two who was sentenced to 30 years in prison after experiencing obstetric complications and died less than a year after sentencing. Recently, the Center and CDFA co-authored the report Marginalized, Persecuted and Imprisoned: The Effects of El Salvador’s Total Criminalization of Abortion that documents the human rights consequences of the abortion ban, and includes the personal stories of five women who were unfairly prosecuted for illegal abortion after suffering obstetric emergencies without receiving medical attention. The report analyzes how El Salvador’s health, judicial and prison systems fail to guarantee pregnant women’s human rights.
 
We hope that the Salvadoran State is receptive to the recommendations and demands of the international community.